Revisiting the Frank Flight Band’s Darkly Brilliant Psychedelia
This is not a place to look for old music: the focus here is typically on the here and now. Even so, the rock n roll highway is littered with the skeleton frames of burnt-out bands that deserve to be remembered far better than they are. The Frank Flight Band, from Southport in the UK, are still going strong – and they’re one of the world’s most underrated psychedelic bands, sort of a British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult. That they’ve released the grand total of three albums in over fifteen years might have something to do with their cult status. However, they’re far from unknown: they’ve spent time on the road, including a tour with Wishbone Ash. Their 2013 album Remains (streaming at Soundcloud) was one of the most darkly exhilarating releases in any style of music last year and is so far the high point of their career. But their previous two albums – Outrunning the Sun and The Sun Will Shine on You – are also worth owning. Fans in Southport can catch the band on February 21 at 9 PM at Victoria Pub, 42-43 Stanley Terrace Promenade.
Flight, with his relentlessly bleak, surreal vision and immersion in decades of psychedelic rock, is the main songwriter and rhythm guitarist but not the frontman. That role is held by Andy Wrigley, whose ageless, weatherbeaten voice is an apt vehicle for Flight’s brooding, often doomed tunesemithing, which like Blue Oyster Cult owes a significant debt to the Doors. Bassist Danny Taylor and drummer Dave Veres have been in and out of the band but are currently in, and are on all the recordings, testament to the pair’s lysergic chemistry and skintight groove. That each of the three albums has a different lead guitarist, yet the sound remains the same, testifies to Flight’s persisently uneasy vision. Although current lead player Alex Kenny is the strongest and bluesiest of the bunch, Dave Thornley and Colins Rens also distinguish themselves as purist, tasteful, incisive, blues-infused players. Likewise, while current keyboardist Michael Woodward stands out for his ornate, Richard Wright-class orchestration, Mark Wainwright, who’s on the first two albums, is also a strong, purposeful organist and pianist.
Thornley’s lone contribution, songwise, to The Sun Will Shine on You (released in 2011) is the catchy, distantly flamenco-tinged Hard Liquor and Grass, which Wrigley delivers more earnestly and seriousmindedly than possibly any other song ever written about getting stoned. The rest of the album is even more serious, existentially and musically speaking. Unsurprisingly, it opens with an antiwar anthem, Went the Day Well, a martial shuffle that juxtaposes battlefield horror with smarmy generals sipping wine out of range of the slaughter while “the leaders of each nation just shrug and walk away.” The band follows that with The Drover’s Wife and the Drifter, a dusky, swaying, folk-tinged anthem, sort of Pink Floyd doing Sympathy for the Devil. Thornley’s echoey, multitracked guitar solos are straight out of 1975, an era this band evokes over and over.
Bird of Prey takes a similarly Doorsy groove and adds ornate gothic tinges in the same vein as Ninth House, with a Light My Fire organ quote exactly where it ought to be and a counterintuitive emotional shift as the song goes on (most of this band’s songs are long, often clocking in at over ten minutes). The blue-sky instrumental Make Believe Highway sounds like Bill Frisell with a rock rhythm section – it’s one of the strongest tunes on the album.
Not in Vain mixes blues, country, soul and a little Tex-Mex behind Flight’s bitter returning soldier’s narrative: “The only hero that doesn’t cause offense is the one that comes back dead,” Wrigley intones. The title track, an eleven-minute epic, foreshadows the direction Flight would take on the next album with its Santana-esque sway, surreal spoken-word vocals and wailing Molly Hatchet/Outlaws guitar outro. Samples of birdsong open and close the album, a device the band turns to for an unexpectedly creepy effect.
Outrunning the Sun finds Flight exploring the latin side of rock, Colin Rens handling the lead guitar. This album is considerably longer, twelve tracks interrupted by the occasional, fleeting instrumental. Recorded in 1999, Flight shelved it and then finally released it ten years later – and the world of psychedelia is better for it. The sixteen-minute title epic slowly coalesces into an uneasy Shine on You Crazy Diamond vamp and then slowly picks up like Santana doing the Doors’ LA Woman, with a long acid blues solo from Rens and some genuinely poetic, metaphorically-charged spoken-word vocals by Wrigley and Taylor.
Tourniquet, a bitter kiss-off anthem, vamps along with a richly jangly ominousness up to another long, pensive Rens guitar solo. Beach House begins as a balmy seaside tableau until the rhythm section kicks in and the darkness makes its way in, hitting a long peak with an unselfconsciously gorgeous guitar solo over Veres’ tumbling drums. Season of Promise is sort of an artsier take on Black Magic Woman, growing more and more intoxicatingly lush as the band adds layer after layer of guitar to the mix: Flight’s chords and voicings are vastly more interesting and varied than merely simple strumming, and once again Rens throws in a nonchalantly biting solo, this time on acoustic.
The band follows Flight’s baroque-tinged miniature Preparations for the May Day Ball with the haunting anthem Better Not Shout , the first of two songs influenced by iconic blues guitarist Otis Rush, Rens’ solo on the way out using the same kind of ominously offcenter passing tones that Rush would typically employ when he played it live. Bad Time for the Future is not an apocalyptic anthem, but another angry breakup song, again setting sunbaked guitar leads to a slinky, clanging clave beat.
Crumbling at my Feet is more or less a funky, latin-flavored take on Otis Rush’s All Your Love. Taylor contributes an enigmatic instrumental that evokes U2 at their darkest and most focused, followed by the practically eighteen-minute Evening Star, a towering global warming-era parable that shifts from echoes of surf rock, to latin art-rock and hypnotically enveloping spacerock fueled by Rens’ pulsing dying-quasar leads. The band speeds it up and then pulls back again, Wrigley calmly narrating a sinister scenario:
The hands of darkness lead the hands of fate
To come push your heavy stone across your gate
Here comes a day of solar breeze
This storm will bake the earth and reap the seas
Our world is saying, “It’s final call,
So thanks for nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all
Ultimately, we’re all outrunning the sun, and this band knows that. That’s one of the reasons they’re important.